Whither an independent judiciary?

Noted lawyer and human rights activist Asma Jahangir has refused to appear before the judicial commission investigating the memo case as counsel for Mr Husain Haqqani. Ms Jahangir’s decision is a serious expression of no confidence in justice being delivered from either the court or the judicial commission. This has raised some serious questions regarding the superior judiciary. From the very beginning of the memo case, it was obvious that more credence was being given by the court to the military top brass as against the civilians. Ms Jahangir expressed her disappointment with the judgement of the nine-member bench of the Supreme Court (SC) headed by Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry. She termed the judgement as a win for the military establishment, which undermined civilian supremacy: “If nine judges of the SC can be [under the establishment’s influence], then I am sorry to say I cannot have any expectations from the high court judges [heading the judicial commission].” That the court is focused on national security instead of upholding fundamental rights and civilian authority has turned the public’s expectations from the ‘independent’ judiciary into disillusionment.

Those who have criticised Ms Jahangir for ‘running away’ from the fight or ‘defeatism’ must remember how hostile the bench was towards the defence counsel. In fact, it seemed like a repetition of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s case, where some quarters lamented that Mr Yahya Bakhtiar did not plead Mr Bhutto’s case well, which led to his hanging. This was despite the fact that the judiciary in those days was completely under the army’s thumb and highly biased towards Mr Bhutto. A similar scenario is in the making today in the memo case. Independent courts all over the world do not hear political cases but in Pakistan’s case, as the Human Rights Watch (HRW) has pointed out, “a tendency for the courts to find themselves embroiled in matters that they would not otherwise be an appropriate forum for”. HRW also expressed “concern about the fear of judicial overreach and unwarranted intrusion into the affairs of the legislature and the executive”. Courts should be a forum of justice where citizens go expecting their rights will be protected. Ms Jahangir was not able to get justice for her client despite making a strong legal case about the maintainability of the memo petitions. Now the judiciary’s ability to provide justice hangs in the balance.

It would be interesting to see if the findings of the judicial commission are different from that of the parliamentary committee’s investigation. In such an event, whose findings would be considered ‘supreme’ would determine where the real power lies. In principle, parliament is supreme but by hearing the petition on an unsigned memo, and that too when parliament is siezed of the matter, the court has in effect given an impression of ignoring the possible pitfalls ahead. With the success of the lawyers’ movement, it was expected that the judiciary would become truly independent but now the perception is growing that not much has changed. If this trend continues, the issue of civil-military imbalance may not be addressed and democracy remain in the dock.

(my editorial in Daily Times)

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